UMD Prepares for Europa with Exploration for Liquid Water in Greenland

By Chrysandra Medley

On Monday, July 23, dozens braved the relentless summer storms to visit MilkBoy ArtHouse for food, drink, and a science lecture given by Nicholas Schmerr, assistant professor in the *Department of Geology at the University of Maryland (UMD).

The lecture, titled “Sounding Ice: Exploring for Liquid Water in the Frozen Subsurfaces of Greenland and Europa”, was a presentation of Schmerr’s field research on the icy terrain of Greenland.  He and his team went on two separate journeys to the country with the goal of using advanced geophysical tools to look through the ice and determine where and how much liquid water is present.

“Liquid water is the medium in which life can happen,” said Schmerr, “My research is focused on looking into environments in the solar system where we can find liquid water.”

Europa, Jupiter’s smallest Galilean moon, could be one of those environments. Scientists have found evidence that Europa might have a liquid water ocean underneath its thick, icy crust. This, combined with the energy obtained through the tidal pressure from Jupiter’s huge gravitational field, gives hope for the possibility of life.

NASA seeks to study Europa through the Europa Clipper, a spacecraft set to launch in 2022-2025. It is a flyby mission, with a lander expected to follow a few years later.

In the meantime, the properties of Europa can be predicted by studying places on Earth that function as an analog environment. Greenland is ideal because of its relative accessibility, thick ice, liquid water ocean, and seismicity.

For the first field mission, Schmerr and his team traveled to Kulusuk, Greenland to study a firn aquifer, a natural water storage system made out of recrystallized snow. In order to look at the properties of the aquifer and determine the location and quantity of the liquid water, they conducted various tests including geophysical sounding and seismic surveying as well as drilling into the core of the firn.

The team found that 20% of the firn is liquid water pooling under the surface. Though they will later return for an investigation into where that water is going, they hypothesize that the aquifers are contributing to sea level rise.

“If we were to take all that water and drain it into the ocean, sea level could rise by about a millimeter,” said Schmerr.

The second field mission involved the team moving farther north to a site near Thule Air Force Base. There, camped over a subglacial lake underneath 800 meter-thick ice, the team conducted IPR and seismic imaging by dragging a radar antenna behind a moving snowmobile, sounding the ice for activity. They also placed a GPS station to monitor movement and buried a lander array donned in seismometers to measure seismic activity.

Combined, the unique field mission data collection methodologies could provide insight into what is residing beneath Greenland’s icy surface.  The findings could similarly provide clues about liquid water on Europa.

“This seismic imaging, just the work we’re doing in Greenland, is really enabling a lot of new science. We’re trying to understand this meltwater process, the generation of meltwater in Greenland, and I think it’s going to lead to a really fantastic Europa mission,” concluded Schmerr.

This event was part of the monthly lecture series “Science on Tap”, an exploration to explore the latest discoveries in science and technology in a relaxed atmosphere with food and drink.  It is a partnership between the UMD College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences (CMNS), the UMD Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center and MilkBoy ArtHouse. To keep up to date about the future Science on Tap events, be sure to subscribe to their mailing list.

The Department of Geology (GEOL) is a partner in the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center (ESSIC).  ESSIC and GEOL share joint professorial appointments with the following UMD CMNS tenured faculty members: James Farquhar, Michael Evens, and Sujay Kaushal.